Meet the Longtime Understudy Who Got His First Starring Role on Broadway

Stephen Payne first started working at a Broadway theater more than 30 years ago.

Stephen Payne
Stephen Payne attends the Broadway Opening Night after party for 'Straight White Men' Broadway Opening Night at DaDong on July 23, 2018 in New York City. (Walter McBride/WireImage)

Actor Stephen Payne first started working at a Broadway theater more then 30 years ago. He was there to move a piano. He said that the stage manager asked him to roll the piano toward a back corner, and crossing the stage while completing that task was “dreamlike.”

He immediately knew what he wanted.

“Before I die,” he remembered thinking, according to The New York Times “there’s only one thing I really care about: I’d just love to own a part on Broadway.”

Just short of his 70th birthday, he got his wish. On opening night, his name was on the program of Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men. Payne plays Ed, the straight white father of three straight white sons.

Born in Liverpool, England, and raised in rural Pennsylvania and Florida, Payne did a tour of duty in Vietnam. He then enrolled in junior college for visual art, and a few years later, moved to New York, where he started moving pianos. Sometime in the early ’80s, a woman saw him sitting on St. Mark’s Place and asked if he wanted to act in a movie, which led to more roles and eventually being an understudy in plays.

Ed in Straight White Men was supposed to be an understudy gig, and he did it without hope of ever winning the role. But then Young Jean Lee, as well as Armie Hammer, Josh Charles and Paul Schneider, the actors who play Ed’s sons, went to the director, director, Anna D. Shapiro, and said they wanted Payne to play the part.

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